The Wire 1A – Intro to Television Studies
All of a sudden yesterday, the internet discovered that Harvard has plans to offer a new course next year on The Wire. Although there aren’t many details about the class, the impression seems to be that it’ll be a sociology class focusing on The Wire’s depiction of urban poverty, decaying cities, and the cultural response to that depiction. Read about it here at doublex, or over here at the NY Post, or Huffington Post, or The National Review. Or, you know, go to the source.
My primary feeling about this is a sense of pleasure that this incredible television show is being given some of the credit it deserves, and pleasure, too, in the belief that it’s going to be a good class. The Wire offers ample opportunity for study and is so multifaceted and ambiguous in its messages about urban life that there will be good discussion and some great papers that come out of it. Even more, the show has been the impetus for several organizations to focus attention on the state of American urban poverty, so it will be a useful case study in the way excellent media can elicit social change. The Wire as this century’s The Jungle, or something along those lines.
Underneath that glow of warm fuzzy feeling, though, I’ll admit to feeling a little bit of something else. Few of them actually express this, but there’s an unmistakable sentiment in many of the pieces I link above that they’re a part of fancy new media, and hilariously, a bastion of the old guard of culture has begun to accept the presence of a slightly-less-new media form like television. It’s a Harvard class about a television show! Worlds collide! It’s worth noting that some of that sentiment is misinformed, and that television has appeared in the academic environment for a while. There have been classes on The Simpsons, and papers on surrealism in Twin Peaks, and analyses of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (truly, there’s an entire field of Buffy Studies, and it only occasionally participates in self-mockery). There was a panel at the MLA last year on The Wire. This Harvard class may be new in its use of television for study in the social sciences rather than the straight-up humanities, but I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that sociology or anthropology have paid attention to television before. So some of my pleasure is colored by a complete lack of surprise – of course someone’s going to teach a class on The Wire. Probably there will also be classes on George Eliot and ethnomusicology. Stop the presses!
But of course, that’s slightly disingenuous. The collective surprise that such a class could exist makes it abundantly obvious that we’ve still not quite cleared the hurdle in our collective subconscious between television and high class fancy book learnin’. It’s a shame. It prevents us from thinking critically about mass media and allows us to underestimate the impact good television can have. So good job, Harvard (not that you really need to be told), and congrats to The Wire for making the leap.